2013 will not be a banner year for profitability, but we should see some improvement on 2012.
Tony Tyler
Director General & CEO

INTERNATIONAL. Global air passenger demand climbed by +5.3% year-on-year in 2012, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has reported. By contrast, cargo traffic fell by -1.5%.

The increase in passenger demand was slightly down on 2011 growth of +5.9% but above the +5% 20-year average. Load factors for the year were near record levels at 79.1%. Demand in international markets expanded at a faster rate (+6.0%) than domestic travel (+4.0%). In both cases emerging markets were the main drivers of growth.

IATA Director General and CEO Tony Tyler said: “Passenger demand grew strongly in 2012 despite the economic bad news that dominated much of the last 12 months. This demonstrates just how integral global air travel is for today’s connected world. At the same time, near-record load factors illustrate the extreme care with which airlines manage capacity. Growth and high aircraft utilization combined to help airlines deliver an estimated US$6.7 billion profit in 2012 despite high fuel prices. But with a net profit margin of just 1.0% the industry is only just keeping its head above water.”

International passenger demand
International passenger demand grew by +6.0% with the strongest growth from emerging markets, particularly the Middle East (+15.4%), Latin America (+8.4%) and Africa (+7.5%). Capacity grew more slowly than demand (+4.0%) supporting a near record level international load factor of 78.9%.

Asia Pacific carriers saw passenger growth of +5.2% in 2012 which was stronger than the +4.0% growth in 2011, though the 2011 figures were affected by the Japanese tsunami. The 2012 performance was in line with the global average and contributed about a fifth of the total industry growth. After a slow start, the fourth quarter was boosted by a revival in the Chinese economy and strengthening momentum in Asian exports and imports. Capacity expansion of just +3.0% for the year kept the load factor at a healthy average of 77.5%.

European airlines’ passenger traffic expanded +5.3% in 2012, sharply down on the +9.5% growth of 2011. Growth was generated by the long-haul performance of Eurozone airlines (within-EU travel stagnated due to slow economic growth). Additionally, around a quarter of the growth in European airline international traffic came from airlines outside of the Eurozone (Turkey being a major contributor). Capacity increased by +3.1%, pushing the full-year average load factor to 80.5%. Combined with other benefits of industry consolidation, the European industry broke even on the year-a much stronger financial performance than would be expected under such harsh economic conditions, said IATA.

North American carriers reported the slowest international passenger growth of any region at +1.3% (down from +4.1% in 2011). Restructuring, consolidation, and tight capacity management (down -0.3% for the year) delivered the highest load factor (82.0%), contributing to an estimated US$2.4 billion profit.

Middle East airlines contributed almost a third of the total expansion in international passenger markets with +15.4% growth (ahead of the +8.9% growth recorded in 2011 that was affected by the Arab Spring). This was achieved with a capacity expansion of +12.5% while improving the load factor to 77.4%. The region’s carriers increased the connectivity of their expanding hubs with significant increases in both network (destinations) and frequency. Despite the expansion, the improved load factor indicates that the growth is sustainable and that airlines in the region have been successful in attracting new passengers.

Latin American carriers recorded +8.4% demand growth in 2012. This was the second-strongest performance (after the Middle East) and was supported by rising incomes and falling unemployment in the region (particularly Brazil). Capacity expanded more slowly than demand (+7.5%) and the load factor stood at 77.9% for the year.

African airlines had a solid year of growth, up +7.5%, as the continent’s economic expansion drove traffic demand. Capacity expansion of +7.1% was just below traffic growth. This improved the load factor to 67.1%, but it was still the weakest of all regions.

Domestic passenger demand
Domestic air travel grew by +4.0% in 2012. China (+9.5%) and Brazil (+8.6%) were the strongest performers. India was the weakest with a -2.1% contraction on 2011 levels. Total capacity growth (+3.8%) was in line with demand (+4.0%) and the domestic load factor stood at 79.5%.

US traffic expanded by +0.8% in 2012 (down from +1.5% in 2011), and capacity grew by just half of that at +0.4%. This supported an 83.4% load factor-the strongest among the major markets. The slowdown reflects the maturity and subdued economic growth of the US market which accounts for about half of all domestic travel.

China and Brazil showed the strongest demand growth in 2012, of +9.5% and +8.6% respectively. They both increased capacity, but Chinese capacity growth of +11.3% outstripped demand, whereas Brazil’s +4.8% was around half the traffic increase. Nevertheless, at 80.9%, Chinese load factor remained strong, and considerably higher than Brazil’s 71.8%.

Japan’s domestic market saw demand grow by +3.6% in 2012 while capacity expanded by +2.3%. Japanese domestic demand continues to suffer from a weak economy that stalled the recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Japan’s domestic market remains -7% smaller than pre-tsunami levels with the weakest load factor (62.0%) among the major domestic markets.

Indian domestic travel shrank by -2.1% on 2011 levels. Weak economic growth was exacerbated by increasing operational costs, insufficient infrastructure, high taxes and onerous regulation. Capacity growth fell to +0.3% (from +16.2% in 2011) and the average load factor for the year was 72.9%.

Tyler said: “We are entering 2013 with some guarded optimism. Business confidence is up. The Eurozone situation is more stable than it was a year ago and the US avoided the fiscal cliff. Significant headwinds remain. There is no end in sight for high fuel prices and GDP growth is projected at just +2.3%. But improved business confidence should help cargo markets to recover the lost ground from 2012. And the momentum built up at the year-end should see the passenger business expand close to the +5% historical growth trend. 2013 will not be a banner year for profitability, but we should see some improvement on 2012.”

In its December outlook for 2013, IATA projected that 2013 would see +4.5% growth in passenger markets and +1.4% growth for cargo demand. That will contribute to an improvement in profitability from US$6.7 billion (1.0% net profit margin) in 2012 to US$8.4 billion (1.3% net profit margin) in 2013.